If the age of innocence is dead, how do we explain the phenomenal success of The Spirit Level? Perhaps it’s the recession. ‘In these gloomy times’, wrote Peter Wilby in the New Statesman, ‘this work should cheer you up no end’. But why should we Brits find it such a tonic? The Spirit Level, which has the self-explanatory subtitle ‘Why more equal societies almost always do better’, spends 300 pages telling us how ghastly Britain is compared to the workers’ paradises of Scandinavia and the egalitarian nirvana of Japan.
If we rule out the ‘feelgood factor’ as a reason for its success, perhaps it’s the halo of science that hangs over the book, written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and published in 2009. According to former Labour Party deputy leader turned newspaper columnist, Roy Hattersley, the book ‘demonstrates the scientific truth of the assertion that social democrats have made for a hundred years’. But while the book’s authors are social epidemiologists, even the casual reader can see that the science amounts to little more than a handful of crude scatter-graphs. If, as is sometimes said, epidemiology is a poor cousin of science, the ecological study (attempting to draw conclusions using aggregate data from entire nations) is the poor cousin of epidemiology. A randomised double-blind trial this is not.
Or maybe it’s the appeal of what the Guardian described as ‘the theory of everything’. In a world of infinite complexities, The Spirit Level offers us reassuring simplicity. According to Wilkinson and Pickett, almost everything can be explained by a single factor. Infant mortality, murder, health, obesity, mental illness, trust, drug use and even recycling all have a common cause: inequality. Not - it must stressed - poverty or deprivation, but the psychological damage of living in a country with a wide gap between rich and poor. Pick any social problem, say the authors, and it will be worse in unequal hell-holes like Australia and America.
This would be Nobel Prize-winning stuff if it were true, but remarkably few of The Spirit Level’s claims stand up to serious scrutiny. Its authors say, for example, that ‘more equal’ countries have lower rates of obesity, teen births, homicide and infant mortality. But all of these assertions largely rest on the ‘more equal’ Japanese doing better than the ‘less equal’ Americans. Maybe inequality really is the root cause of these differences, but we must at least entertain the possibility that Asian countries are culturally, historically and physiologically different from Anglo-Saxon nations.
To find out, we would need to look at some other Asian societies. The twin elephants in the room are Singapore and Hong Kong, both of which perform superbly under almost every criteria despite having the most extreme gulf between rich and poor. If, as Wilkinson and Pickett insist, there is a cause-and-effect at work, there should also be a dose-response relationship—the least equal countries should do worst. In fact, these two bastions of unabashed capitalism do conspicuously well. Or rather they would do, if Wilkinson and Pickett showed us the data. Singapore is mentioned only occasionally in The Spirit Level, and Hong Kong not at all.